Fish: The Two Languages of Academic Freedom

May 27, 2011

The byways of the web took me recently to an on-line column of Stanley Fish from February 8, 2009.  Fish is someone with whom I agree about 50% of the time — that is, no more often than chance.  But he does make one think.

Fish says, “My assessment of the way in which some academics contrive to turn serial irresponsibility into a form of heroism under the banner of academic freedom has now been at once confirmed and challenged by events at the University of Ottawa…..”  The column recounts Fish’s understanding of those events, which involve a Professor Rancourt who thought he could do pretty much as he pleased in his courses, and the university who dismissed him for not adhering to some of its authoritative policies.

Fish concludes by posing a contrast between two images of academic frededom, one being “academic freedom as a doctrine whose scope is defined by the purposes and protocols of the institution and its limited purposes,” and the other being “academic freedom as a local instance of a global project whose goal is nothing less than the freeing of revolutionary energies, not only in the schools but everywhere.”  He adds,

It is the difference between being concerned with the establishing and implementing of workplace-specific procedures and being concerned with the wholesale transformation of society. It is the difference between wanting to teach a better physics course and wanting to save the world. Given such divergent views, not only is reconciliation between the parties impossible; conversation itself is impossible. The dispute can only be resolved by an essentially political decision.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to Fish: The Two Languages of Academic Freedom

  1. Shyla says:

    Fish’s framing of the choice–a procedural versus transformative view of academic freedom–reveals a keen understanding of the weakness of his adversaries. The professional liberal class is squeamish about associating itself with “revolutionary energies.”

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